Q&A with Barbara Burger, President of Chevron Technology Ventures

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I really enjoyed interviewing Barbara Burger about Chevron Technology Ventures’ new Future Energy Fund and about Global Corporate Venturing’s Houston conference in November, which, I’m very happy to say, she is co-chairing, and which Chevron is co-sponsoring. Barbara is challenging GCV to “include all aspects of the energy vertical.” But she also wants to see Houston “look forward to where the economy is going overall, as well as in our strong sectors of energy, life sciences and space.”  The conference agenda can be seen at www.venture-houston.com. Please contact me if you are an emerging company with technology that is disrupting the energy vertical, and would like to present at the conference. We will be covering digital energy, food and agriculture, low-carbon and clean-tech, health, and much more.

What’s new about the new fund? How different will the investment strategy of the Future Energy Fund be from that of previous Chevron venture funds?

The investment focus for Future Energy Fund will be different than our earlier funds – it will be focused on technologies that enable emissions reduction in oil and gas operations as well as investments in technologies that may breakthrough or disrupt the energy vertical in the future. We have had investments in this space in the past but having a parallel fund in our organization brings specific focus to this area. We will, however, manage the fund using the practices we have developed over the nearly 20 years that we have had a corporate venture organization.

What’s not changing? I mean, is Chevron’s commercial deployment of venture-backed technologies still the ultimate end game?

Our model is to add value to Chevron through being an on-ramp for promising innovators – we find, evaluate and integrate external start up technologies into Chevron.  That won’t change.

Is Chevron, the parent company, setting new venturing priorities for you? In Europe, energy corporate VCs are increasingly being tasked with helping their parent companies grow their low carbon and electric mobility businesses.  How does it differ for Chevron?

Our objectives for Future Energy Fund (which are stated above) are consistent with our corporate views on the expectations for our industry – we enable human progress by supplying safe, affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy.

Chevron Technology Ventures has been active for just about 20 years. Does that mean that when you look at future energy technologies and business models, you find yourself saying that you’ve seen some of this before? I mean, is there a cyclical element to the ‘future energy’ investment theme?

We’ve watched this space for a long time and have played in some areas before. That experience makes us better informed today. We’ve monitored the cost curves, the scaling opportunities and the impact of policies. So, it’s not about us joining a new cycle. We simply believe that now is the right time to build on our participation. And we’ve gotten smarter about what it takes to be successful in this area.

How is Chevron’s ‘pool’ of co-investors growing? In one of your portfolio businesses – Maana – you’ve co-invested with fellow energy CVCs, but also with Accenture Ventures and new Chinese CVCs. Is this a taste of the future?

We have had a track record of investing with a diverse set of players and we see that as continuing and growing. There are two reasons; more and more corporations and other businesses are starting venture capital arms (as well as venture investments coming from family offices and other investors) and some of our investments – particularly in the digital realm – cut across industry verticals and thus attract a wide range of interested investors.

What’s special about the Houstonian and broader Texan venture eco-system? How is Chevron helping support and grow the venturing and innovations there?

I’ll speak to Houston as a city. We have developed a vision and comprehensive strategic plan for growing the innovation ecosystem. It is inclusive rather than being focused on venture-backed start ups. It draws on collaboration between government, universities, start ups, investors and corporations. We have a huge number of corporations with a presence in Houston that can provide a built-in customer base for start ups, if we have the right relationships. That hasn’t been always done in the past. There is still much that we have to do about it. We have been punching below our weight but there is momentum. And when Houston goes for it, great things happen.

I know. I saw the Houston Astros win the World Series the day of GCV’s first Houston conference. It was a great time to be in the City. Thanks for supporting the conference and for supporting our conference again this year as conference co-chair. What are your expectations? What should be our objectives and ambitions?

Thanks for coming back! We’re happy to see you active in Houston. I don’t think your activities should be confined to the west and east coasts. There is a lot happening here. The event should mimic the ecosystem and its inclusiveness. We should include all aspects of the energy vertical, by which I mean all sources, and from generation to use. We need diverse panels, from different parts of the ecosystem so that people from outside the corporations can see how they can plug in. Fundamentally, we need to be forward looking. Houston has a great legacy; we put a man on the moon, we have a great history in oil and gas. But we now need to look forward to where the economy is going overall, as well as in our strong sectors of energy, life sciences and space.

You’re one of the few women at the top of the CVC industry. What’s your advice for corporate VCs seeking to employ more women? And what’s your advice for women who want to work in energy venturing?

I think of myself as working in energy more than the Corporate Venture Capital industry as I have had a long career in Chevron with the last five years as the President of our Technology Ventures Company. But my advice is no different. For companies, the best way to be inclusive is to be inclusive. When prospective or new employees look up, do they see people that look like them? Secondly, when they look up and they see people that look different, are those people welcoming? That is diversity and inclusion. We’re working hard on this at Chevron in many dimensions and while we have made progress, we are not there yet. I view one of my most important responsibilities (and one of my most rewarding ones) as making progress in this area.

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